Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Aboriginal Canadians divided over Vancouver Olympics

By Brandy Yanchyk

The Canadian city of Vancouver is gearing up to host nearly four weeks of Winter Olympic and Paralympic sporting action in February and March.

The Games, set to attract international attention, have a particular importance for Canada's aboriginal peoples, as many of the sporting events will take place on their ancestral land.

The peoples involved - the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations - who live on and share the land, have joined forces.

Together with the Vancouver Olympic Committee (Vanoc), they will be hosting the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games in a partnership that is making Olympic history.

This is the first time that aboriginals have been official partners in the Olympics and have been involved in every aspect of the Games starting from the bidding process.

'Stolen land'

For some aboriginals, this partnership is seen as a unique opportunity for Canada's indigenous peoples to show their culture to the world.

For others, the Vancouver Olympics are a waste of money and resources that could be better spent on serious issues facing aboriginals in Canada.

Rose Henry
Many of our community members are paying with their lives with the inadequate housing and healthcare
Rose Henry
Olympic Resistance Network

Canada's indigenous peoples have suffered a long history of poverty, unemployment, and problems with addiction and high rates of suicide.

Tewanee Joseph, head of the umbrella group known as the Four Host First Nations, sees the Vancouver Winter Olympics as a great time for aboriginals to rebrand themselves in a positive way.

"What people will learn is that we're business people, we're entrepreneurs, we're visual artists and we're performing artists. You know our culture is really living and thriving today and it's been through challenges," says Mr Joseph.

"We no longer want to be seen as just Dime Store Indians, just beads and feathers. I think for us those stereotypes are very important for us to break."

Despite all the potential positive attention on their culture, many of British Columbia's aboriginals still feel that the decision to hold the Olympics in Vancouver (and the resort town of Whistler) was wrong.

"A lot of First Nations considered the land to be stolen," says Josh Anderson from the Lil'wat Nation.

"Our people were actually there to watch the construction of the facilities for the Olympics just in case the lands were desecrated or disrespected in any way."

A number of First Nations continue to be concerned about how the expansion of Whistler for the Olympics is affecting their land and the environment.

'No teepees'

Despite the opposition by some of his people, Mr Anderson welcomes the arrival of the Olympic Games and intends to use the exposure as an opportunity to educate the world about his culture.

He will be teaching Lil'wat history to visitors at the new Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, built with provincial and federal government funding.

Performing at the Squamish Lilwat cultural centre
There are aims to bring the aboriginal culture to a wider audience

"A lot of people think that we, the Lil'wat and the Squamish, are Eskimos and that we live in igloos and that we have teepees here. We don't have teepees and we are not Eskimos," Mr Anderson says.

"We do have cold winters and we used to live in underground dwellings in pit houses. We call them istkens."

For aboriginals like Rose Henry, of Sliammon heritage, and Jayson Fleury, who is Saulteaux-Cree, the idea that Vanoc is spending C$1.7bn ($1.6bn;£1bn) on the Games is upsetting. They both belong to the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) whose motto is "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land."

They believe that some of that money should be spent on issues like homelessness and addiction.

"If you go to Vancouver's downtown eastside, you will see that most of the homeless are First Nations people and they are from this area," says Mr Fleury. "So their rights, their livelihood are not being honoured in any fashion."

"It is costing us a lot more than just the dollars," adds Ms Henry.

"Many of our community members are paying with their lives with the inadequate housing and healthcare and so the rippling effects go beyond the 17-day party that's going to be happening here that we can't afford."

Snowboarding success

The province of British Columbia, Vanoc, and the Four Host First Nations still believe that the Olympics will have a lasting positive impact on Canada's aboriginals and have set up economic, art and sporting legacy programmes.

One fund has helped to create the First Nations snowboard team which started with 10 members and now has 200 from 13 First Nations across British Columbia.